The ashes downstream of Pike River

The metaphorical Pike River post-mortem has started, without waiting for the Royal Commission and others’ findings, in some defiance of the truth, and the incendiary risks

Sometimes there are no words. And yet, columns must be written, inches and airtime filled, any kind of resolution sought for those who must carry on. Inquiries must be launched and action taken, on behalf of those who cannot.

And so, the metaphorical post-mortems — the official inquiries, with media fossicking round the edges — have started, into what happened at Pike River. Sunday morning programme Q&A devoted itself to the issues that would be canvassed by a Royal Commission of Inquiry.

It must be done. But it is a bad business, as well as a desperately sad one. There can be no winners from this, and the indirect fallout is much wider than the 29 bereft families, or Greymouth, reeling from a punch in the throat.

We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth; but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.John F Kennedy

Before Pike River, 19/11, Pike River was and is the mine under Paparoa National Park. The mine beneath protected Schedule 4 land, accessed from conservation land. The mine lauded by governments of both stripes, and the mining industry, as an example of best practice, although, not all agreed.

Analysis, on Q&A and elsewhere, is now turning to whether mine workers’ safety was put at risk for the sake of the environment.

A source for this week’s Listener feature doubts the feasibility of pre-draining methane from beneath the Paparoa ranges, with a national park on top, while suggesting it may have been needed. Q&A panellist Matt McCarten alleged on Sunday that a second ventilation shaft had been proposed, until some endangered blue duck were found near the site of it. These questions would, they agreed, need to be gone into by the inquiry.

“And we will find out if we have endangered human life for the sake of the blue duck” summed up Holmes, succinctly.

“And we will therefore have to assess, should we have done it,” he added, elliptically.

Time and careful inquiry will tell us the causes of those devastating consequences: whether the blue duck did, in fact, have anything to do with the endangerment. The allegation has been rebutted, as a "myth" and "completely false".

Pike River looms large at the moment. It risks misunderstanding of another, quite separate, lignite-focused campaign.

But, indirectly, depending on the answers to the types of questions now being asked, the inquiry may find itself unable to avoid some glancing comment on the interface between mining and conservation. It may have to end up addressing the truth of the proposition that even in pristine areas, mining and the environment can be friends, as well as assigning blame, or not, to the blue duck.

Meanwhile — while we wait to learn if the mine can limp on to some sort of recovery, or will close its doors, and remember its victims tomorrow, and today — the incendiary toxic atmosphere around Pike River is not only local to the coalface.

There’s a risk that outrage and grief in the mining community will find its outlet in the end along the path of least resistance: blaming the greenies, as Gordon Campbell put it. There will be some people with an interest in helping that along.